Wi-Fi brings broadband to rural Washington

Low-priced technology is an option for Internet access

SAN FRANCISCO - Technologies that extend the range of Wi-Fi wireless LANs are making that low-priced technology an option for broadband Internet access in U.S. rural areas with limited broadband options.

An electric power cooperative in southeastern Washington deployed access points and other equipment from Vivato Inc. to spread 2.4GHz Wi-Fi service across a 3,700-square-mile (9,582-square-kilometer) region, Vivato announced Monday. The area, bigger than Delaware, encompasses three counties and has a population of about 60,000, according to Tom Husted, chief executive officer of Columbia Rural Electric Association (REA) and its Columbia Energy LLC subsidiary, in Dayton, Washington, which is building the network. OneEighty Networks Inc., in Spokane, Washington, is the Internet service provider (ISP).

Residents in the three counties -- Walla Walla, Columbia and Umatilla -- have cable-modem service in some parts of the region but there is little DSL (digital subscriber line) service, Husted said. Columbia REA, a nonprofit, member-owned utility, wanted to expand local residents' broadband options and rejected wired options because of the cost of laying fiber or wires, Husted said. At the same time, it saw a potential gold mine of applications for wireless in remote monitoring and control for Columbia REA's electric utility operation, as well as farms in the area.

Agriculture is a large part of the local economy, with farmers growing about 220 different crops including asparagus, carrots, watermelons, apples and potatoes as well as wine grapes. The long-range Wi-Fi network will allow for remote control and monitoring of irrigation pumps, sprinkler systems and other farm technology, according to Husted. That can help lower costs in a farming region that is more expensive than many others in the U.S. and around the world, he said. Those systems are now being controlled manually.

"You've got people who do nothing but drive from irrigation system to irrigation system," Husted said.

The Columbia Energy initiative is large as unlicensed wireless deployments go. There are more than 8,000 wireless ISPs in the U.S. using license-exempt frequencies such as 2.4GHz, most of them in rural areas, according to Part-15.org, a support group for wireless ISPs. About half of U.S. wireless ISPs have fewer than 100 customers, according to materials from the group, based in North Aurora, Illinois.

Vivato's technology works with standard Wi-Fi clients but achieves a long reach with large "phased array" antennas that can form multiple directional beams to reach individual customers, said Kevin Ryan, vice president of marketing and business development at San Francisco-based Vivato. About 1,500 customers can be assigned to one antenna, though the number of users who can access it simultaneously varies depending on their bandwidth needs, Ryan said.

The rural setting was ideal for achieving a long range with Vivato's IEEE 802.11b technology, which uses the unlicensed 2.4GHz radio band, Husted said. Columbia's network is designed to provide several megabits per second at a range of 20 miles in some places, he said.

"That's one of the benefits of being able to deploy a system like this in a rural area. You don't have a lot of competition and you don't have a lot of interference with other companies utilizing other technologies," Husted said.

In areas where there are obstructions or interference, Vivato installed shorter range access points, called picocells and microcells. The picocells are standard Wi-Fi access points in hardened outdoor enclosures, with a reach of 300 to 500 feet (91 meters to 152 meters), and the microcells are access points with directional antennas designed to reach 1,500 to 2,000 feet to reach particular buildings in built-up areas, said Vivato's Ryan.

The low cost of the Wi-Fi clients was a key factor in Columbia's decision, according to Husted. The utility ran a small trial of another wireless broadband technology and found that it worked but represented three to six times the equipment cost to customers, he said.

The service is available now, with Columbia REA already up and running as a customer, Husted said. Service plans, all offering best-effort service and equal bandwidth upstream and downstream, will range from 256K bps (bits per second) for $39.95 per month to 1.5M bps for $259.95 per month. Multiple clients in the same enterprise will be able to share a single account.

Wi-Fi has limitations as a broadband access technology because of interference but is well suited to remote monitoring, and the combination could create a good business opportunity, said Tad Neeley, an analyst at RHK Inc., in South San Francisco, California.

"The Wi-Fi chipset is so inexpensive today that you can put it in just about any device now," Neeley said.